It was while hunting for our teacher’s place that my friend Rima and I noticed the house for the first time. It stood by the road - lonely, dark and forsaken; the wicket-gate ajar; and the garden — what there was of it — overgrown with weeds.
“Funny to see a house like this in the middle of a posh locality like the Defence Colony!” I remarked, suppressing an involuntary shudder as I looked at the dark curtains pulled across the glass-panelled door.
“Why, whatever’s wrong with it?” asked Rima who was not imaginative.
“Isn’t there something sort of sinister about the place?” I asked.
“Don’t be silly, Tina” said Rima in a stern voice, “it’s just an ordinary, empty house.”
I paused and looked at the nameplate on the big iron gate – Bide-a-wee.
“How romantic . . . and poetic!” I said, “but why is it empty? Houses are scarce enough in Delhi and in a place like the Defence Colony . . .”
“Probably the rent is too high or the owner doesn’t want to rent it” answered Rima.
“I wonder what it’s like inside” I remarked.
“Well, you’re not likely to find out” said Rima, “snap out of it, for goodness’ sake and let’s find Miss Sinha’s house. We have to give her the leave-note before tomorrow, remember.”
Some weeks later I had to go to that locality again to shop for mom. She wanted some ingredients for baking my sister’s birthday cake and asked me to pick up some orange and lemon peel in the Defence Colony Market. And there were several other things as well. After getting them I looked round for an auto-rickshaw but could find none. It was inconvenient to walk with so many parcels in both hands. Knowing this, mom had categorically asked me to come home by an auto.
I was just wondering what to do when I stumbled over a stone and fell down, my parcels scattering all over the road. I tried to get up, but the pain was excruciating. My ankle hurt badly. I hoped it was only a sprain but I feared it was a fracture. I looked around, collecting the few parcels that lay near by. There was not a soul in sight. I was in a lonely avenue where no buses plied. I knew I’d have to hop up to the nearest house and ring for a taxi. Thank goodness I had enough money to pay for it. But all the houses looked so very posh and cold! Probably a snooty ayah (maid) or bearer would answer my bell and pretend to take me for a tramp. Or they might slam the door at my face.
I was about to try my luck when I heard a voice say, “Can I help you? I see you’ve hurt yourself.” I turned to find a young man standing right behind me. His accent was that of a foreigner though he looked Indian. I looked at him. He wore a flaming red kurta (Indian –style shirt) and crushed mauve jeans. He had a shaggy beard and moustaches, curly brown hair reaching to his elbows and wore a pair of beautiful green dark-glasses.
He was already picking up the scattered parcels and asked me if I wanted to be helped up. “Oh no, thanks,” I said, getting up with a groan. “I’ll be obliged if you ring for a taxi.”
“Of course, I will,” he said, “couldn’t you walk a step and wait at my house?”
“I wouldn’t dream of bothering you,” I said, “I can easily wait here.”
“Please don’t take me amiss” said the man apologetically, “I didn’t mean to offend you.
I’ve just come to India and I’m not sure about the done things, so to speak. I was merely trying to be helpful.”
He sounded so sincere that I felt that I had been unnecessarily rude.
“It’s just here,” he said again, “I thought you could wait there more comfortably than the footpath.”
“O.K” I said, surprised at myself, as I had very strong views about talking to strangers and going to strange places. I was still more surprised to find myself right in front of Bide-a-wee. I had no idea that this road led to it.
“Surely, you don’t live in this spooky place?” I blurted out before I could stop myself.
He gave a ringing laugh as he held open the wicket, “you’ve hit the nail on the head and no mistake! Boy! Gave me the creeps when I saw it first!”
His stay did not seem to have made much difference to the house, I decided, looking about me. True, the place no longer looked sinister by daylight but it was as messy and untidy as ever. I hobbled along beside him and entered the large drawing-room. He got me a dusty chair. “Do rest your foot while I run next door and ring for a cab. Are you sure you wouldn’t like a cup of tea?”
“Quite sure,” I said firmly. I didn’t want to be rude to the nice, helpful boy, but I didn’t want to stay in this house a moment longer than was necessary! As he said himself, it did give one the creeps.
It was certainly the messiest house I had ever seen. There was a thick carpet of dust on the marble floor. Cobwebs clung to the ceiling in weird shapes. The furniture—beautiful as it must have once been—was covered with layers of grime! So was the grand piano standing in the middle of the room with a gorgeous chandelier just above it. I shivered, and suddenly felt as though I had gone back half-a-century. Only one corner of the room looked lived in. There was a camp-bed with a table beside it. There were masses of canvas, paints and brushes strewn all over. A few half-done oil paintings lay on the floor. Another stood on the easel. So that’s what he is, I told myself, an artist. No wonder he seemed so strange and queer. Artists often were, I suppose.
“Sorry, the place is in such a mess,” said my host coming in noiselessly, “I’m no good at this sort of thing — cleaning and scrubbing, I mean.”
“Don’t tell me you live here all alone” I said surprised, “and why did you pick this barrack of a place if you do?”
He laughed again. “There was no ‘picking’, I assure you,” he said, “this happens to be my dad’s house.”
“Sorry,” I said, blushing furiously, “I’m always putting my foot in! But why do you leave the place like this if it’s yours?”
“I need time to settle down, don’t I?” he said, “I landed here barely three days ago and I don’t know a soul except for my next door neighbour.”
“But,” I began and stopped short. It seemed rude to ask him how the place got into its present state of abandon.
He noticed my look and said, “ dad built this house twenty years ago and no one has lived in it ever since.”
“How come?” I was really curious now.
“Well, my parents decided to take a holiday in Scotland and look up Mum’s people there soon after the house was built. I was a baby then. Dad caught pneumonia and died out there. Mum and I have lived abroad ever since.”
“I see,” I said. “That explains the name, I suppose.”
“Bide-a-wee? Yes. It was named after Mum’s own home in Aberdeen.”
I didn’t know what else to say.
“Mum’s coming down here next week. You should see the place after she has had time to spruce it up! Mum’s a great one for putting things shipshape” he added proudly.
“That reminds me, what about my taxi?” I asked, “did you ring for one?”
“There weren’t any at the stand,” he said, “but the fellow there told me that one will be along presently. Boy! Didn’t I have a time making myself understood!” and he laughed again.
“What’s your name?” he asked me casually, “I’m Robin, by the way. Robin Singh. Should have introduced ourselves sooner, I guess”
“It doesn’t matter” I replied, “I am Tina Malhotra.”
“I’m sure the taxi will turn up soon” said Robin, “I’ll get you a cup of tea.”
“Please don’t bother,” I said trying to forget my aching foot, “So, you’re an artist?”
“I paint a little,” he said modestly, “it’s the only thing I care about.”
I was surprised to find a cup of tea on the table. I certainly never saw him put it there.
There wasn’t another soul around that I could see. I touched the cup and drew my hand away in surprise. It was icy cold and felt like a hundred years stale!
“I say, the tea isn’t cold, is it?” asked Robin anxiously, “I’m so sorry. I must have forgotten to put the tea-cosy on.”
Just then I heard the horn of a taxi outside. “There you are,” he said cheerfully. “It’s been nice meeting you,” he added extending his hand.
“Thanks for being so helpful,” I said, shaking the offered hand. And, then, I screamed! The hand in my grasp was a skeleton’s. I looked up. The dark glasses had fallen on the floor and I found myself staring at the vacant sockets of a skull. I screamed again and the world grew dizzy around me.
When I opened my eyes, I found myself in my bedroom, with a couple of blankets over me and a hot-water bottle at my feet. There was my mother and the doctor bending over me. “Malaria, beyond a doubt,” I heard him say. “It’s raging all over Delhi in an epidemic form.”
“And these . . . hallucinations?” asked mum, “all this talk about a haunted house and ….?”
“A common enough symptom,” said the doctor, “she’ll get over it, don’t worry.”
As I got better one of the first things I wanted to know was how mum had brought me home from that haunted house.
“You were nowhere near any house” said mum, “you were lying in the middle of Varuna Marg where Mr. Juneja, our landlord, found you. He brought you home.”
“My . . . my ankle?” I asked.
“What about it?” she asked.
“Haven’t I a fracture?”
“Certainly not. There’s nothing the matter with your ankle.”
I felt my ankle. Both ankles. There was nothing wrong with either! Had I imagined it all? Somehow I couldn’t convince myself that it was so. I did not have another chance to go near Bide-a-wee or perhaps I avoided it consciously. A month later my dad was transferred to another city and we left Delhi soon after.
I suppose my story would have ended right here with a lot of unexplained loose ends. But in real life postscripts sometimes turn up in the most unexpected of places.
I was going to Calcutta to visit my grandparents and sitting next to me in train was an old lady. She was from the UK, visiting India for the first time. As it was a longish journey we soon got talking. She was Mrs. McBean. When she heard that I had lived in Delhi for some years she asked me a lot of questions about the place.
“I had a sister living in Delhi,” she added.
“Oh?” I said politely, not feeling particularly interested.
“She married a Sikh doctor. Very sad affair.”
“Why?” I asked curiously.
“They came to Scotland a year after the wedding and he died. It was Pneumonia.”
I sat up. It rang a bell somewhere though I could not place it right then. “What about your sister?” I asked.
“She and her baby lived with my parents in Aberdeen. The boy came to India later but he too died.”
“How?” I asked breathlessly.
“No one knows,” said Mrs. McBean shaking her head. “He was found dead in the house three days after his arrival. Really sad and mysterious!”
I nodded, unable to speak.
“My poor sister was off her head with grief,” she continued. “Sold the place and went back home.”
“Where was this house?” I asked, though I knew the answer now.
“I’ve forgotten the name of the place,” said Mrs. McBean, “it was all so long ago. I only remember that she called the house Bide-a-wee after our own home. Why, how white you look! Do you feel sick?”
I did indeed feel sick as I tried to push the vivid memory of that afternoon off my mind.
“This boy, “I said, trying to speak in normal voice, “what was his name?”
“Gurmeet,” said Mrs. McBean.
I heaved a sigh of relief. It must be a mistake, a sheer coincidence, I told myself firmly. Mrs. McBean would be getting down at the next station and we were almost there.
“It’s been a nice journey,” she said, getting up as the train slowed down.
“Yes.” I agreed – and couldn’t stop myself from asking the next question. “Did your nephew have any other name?”
“Sweet of you to be interested” she said ith a charming smile, “everyone called him Robin. After Robin Adair, you know, that famous ballad.”
The train had stopped. Mrs. McBean waved me a cheerful adieu and ran towards the door.